Warren Haynes Revisits The Mulennium
Photo by Rich Cox
Warren Haynes has been a self-proclaimed “student of music” for over 40 years, and if he has his way, will continue to be a student for the next forty. This lead guitar/vocal powerhouse started humbly enough, singing in the school choir at age 7 in Asheville, NC, and picking up his older brother’s electric guitar at age eleven. Upon receiving an electric guitar of his own (“a $49 guitar from the hardware store” for his 12th birthday – April 6, 1972), it became clear to all who cared to listen that this was what he wanted to do with his life. Through stints filling the late Duane Allman’s shoes in the reunited Allman Brothers Band, to forming his own Cream/Hendrix-inspired power trio Gov’t Mule, to hooking up with various post-Grateful Dead incarnations, to sharing the stage with just about every living music icon he could imagine, Haynes has long since become an iconic figure in his own right.
It may seem odd that such a rock stalwart claims his young ears turned early toward soul music by the likes of The Four Tops, The Temptations, James Brown, Sam & Dave, and Wilson Pickett, but then again, The Allman Brothers started out as a blues band. Haynes credits his older brothers’ interest in rock music as the catalyst that made him reach for the guitar. When asked if he was self-taught or took lessons, he fondly recalls the tutelage of another self-taught player from North Carolina – Andy Hunter, whom Haynes “really loved and who taught me a lot, but…realized that I was pushing myself and learning a lot on my own and, since he was self-taught, he kind of pulled me aside one day and said, ‘Look, I think you’re doing fine without my help. I feel like I’m stealing your money,’ and it was a very honest thing to tell a student. But I think at that point I was far enough along where he felt like I could continue to progress on my own. I’ve always respected him for that, and he’s a great player.”
Haynes continues to push himself decades later, as he barely flinches when playing “13 shows in a row,” as Gov’t Mule did recently. Though, he admits, “15 years ago, I would have not been able to keep that pace up. But somehow it just turned into a strength-building process. There is something bizarre about the fact – and it is a fact – that the longer you stay on the road, the better your chops get, as a guitar player and as a singer, and when you take a break…if you don’t play for 2 or 3 months…in some ways, you’re not starting over, but you’re definitely starting back with a handicap from a physical standpoint. Mentally, it’s a blast to play when you’ve taken some time off, but physically it’s a whole different thing. Especially for us [because] we play 3-hour shows…the type of improvisation that we do is very taxing. Improvisation is momentary composition, so when you’re composing on the spot you’re under a lot of pressure. And it’s good pressure, it’s the kind of pressure we all love, but it’s pressure nonetheless.”
I pointed out that, despite the pressure of live improvisation, I personally witnessed the Allman Brothers Band open a Red Rocks show in 2004 with “Mountain Jam,” arguably THE improvisational cornerstone of their repertoire. Haynes chuckled and responded, “You know, that’s just jumping right into the fire, but it’s also a way of relaxing a little bit and saying, ‘Hey, we’re not in a hurry. We may play this song for 10 minutes, we may play it for 18 minutes – who knows? Let’s see.’” (They played it for 18.)
On the other side of the coin would be the studio album. Polar opposite to improvisation – and, granted, on its way out if iTunes has anything to say about it – the “live-sounding” studio album has plagued great live rock bands since the dawn of time. The Grateful Dead were able to capture their stadium sound somewhat on 1987’s In the Dark only by renting out an auditorium to record it in. Traditional wisdom for a band like The Dead or ABB would have been to road test all the songs for months, if not years, before committing them to record, but Haynes says the internet age has changed that scenario drastically. Specifically, with regard to Gov’t Mule’s 2009 release By a Thread, as opposed to the ABB’s Hittin’ the Note from 2003, Haynes said, “We’ve recently been making a point of not playing the songs until they’re recorded [in the studio] because…with the internet being what it is now, every major fan worldwide has access to all the live shows, so people were circulating live recordings of what they thought was gonna be the new Allman Brothers record, and there were thousands of them going around and so, by the time the record came out, there were no surprises. Everybody was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard all these songs before.’ They’d even gotten attached to their favorite live versions.” And, if you look, you’d be hard pressed to find live recordings of the songs from By a Thread that pre-date the release of the studio album. It’s a great rock album, though, with thick sounds saturated well beyond the point of heavy-osity. Throw on headphones – real headphones, not those crappy ear buds – and these tracks feel like a freight train running between your ears.